CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The NCAA’s effort to speed up college basketball by reducing the shot clock to 30 seconds and limiting timeouts this season has worked, although it might not be apparent at the top of the ACC standings, where No. 7 North Carolina and No. 3 Virginia are thriving by doing what they do best: manipulating tempo.
Entering this season, UNC was 9-14 over the past three years in games with 66 or fewer possessions. This season, the Tar Heels are 3-1 in such games, a stat which speaks to both UNC’s improved offensive play in slower-paced contests and the implementation of the NCAA’s rules additions.
The median adjusted tempo nationally in 2014-15 was 64.7, according to kenpom.com. Due to the rules changes, that median has jumped up to 68.9 in 2015-16.
That’s been a positive development for UNC, which is averaging 73.2 possessions per game, second in the ACC to Wake Forest (73.8). The Tar Heels’ adjusted tempo of 72.4 represents their highest mark since the 2008-09 national title team (73.9).
Williams attributed an experienced roster and guard play to his team’s success against teams that prefer the slowest of tempos, although he acknowledged on Friday he hasn’t put much thought into the topic for one obvious reason: “I feel like everybody wants to play a slower pace than we do, so it’s nothing different for me.”
UNC is 6-1 in ACC games with 71 or more average possessions, and nearly equivalent at 6-2 in league contests with 70 or fewer average possessions.
“It hasn’t really bothered us very much,” Williams said.
While the rules changes were expected to work in UNC’s favor, the opposite held true for Virginia. However, Tony Bennett’s squad has dismissed that theory by staying true to his coaching philosophy. While the Cavaliers’ adjusted tempo (61.5) is the highest its been since Bennett’s first year in Charlottesville in 2009-10 (63.0), their adjusted offensive efficiency (117.7) is the highest of his tenure.
Williams said that while UNC has faced opponents that stand around for 10-15 seconds before starting their offense in an attempt to slow his team down, Virginia doesn’t take that approach.
“I just think they wait until they get the shot they want,” Williams said. “They don’t stand out there and milk the clock for 20 seconds and then start playing. If you give them a good shot early, they will take it early. I’ve never asked Tony if he likes being called a guy that slows it down, but that’s not what I see…
“I say to my team all of the time, ‘Get the shot that we all want, not just the person taking the shot.’ I tend to describe theirs like that.”
Tempo has mattered in this series in recent years, with Virginia’s wins coming in games averaging 63 possessions and UNC’s wins coming in games averaging 68 possessions.
The Cavaliers rank ninth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (92.7), according to kenpom.com, and have been effective in limiting transition opportunities, holding its ACC opponents to 3.8 fast break points per game. Williams described Bennett’s approach as to “fight like crazy” on the defensive end and then sprint back to not give up anything easy in transition.
UNC’s best offense may have to come from its defense.
“The key is getting some stops against them,” senior guard Marcus Paige said. “They run that really methodical offense with the flare screens and the baseline screens. If they get a basket after working the clock for 25 seconds, it’s hard to get the ball out and go because they’re able to get back and get their defense set. They’re not going to turn it over a whole bunch, but maybe forcing a couple of turnovers or getting some long defensive rebounds that lead to breaks are the most important.”
That approach worked well in UNC’s 71-67 upset of the Cavaliers in last season’s ACC Tournament semifinals. The Tar Heels held the No. 1 seed to 44.2 percent shooting and forced 13 turnovers, thereby ramping up the tempo and forcing Virginia to play at an uncomfortable pace.